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Rollercoaster

The disaster films of the 1970s marked the death rattle of the Hollywood studio system and served as the establishment's rebuttal to the youthful excesses and longueurs of the New Hollywood. While Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Peter Bogdanovich were breaking the rules, journeymen such as Ronald Neame, John Guillermin, Mark Robson, and Jack Smight were put to work making The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), Earthquake (1974), and Airport 1975 (1974). Disaster pictures were not only a response to such personal, indulgent films as Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Picture Show (1971), and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) but served as reminders of how the studio system worked best, as a well-oiled machine, with a capable director communicating with equal dexterity between his actors and technical staff, while honoring the dictums and caprices of the front office. Special effects and big box craftsmanship to one side, the allure of the disaster cycle lay in its revolving cast of aging Hollywood A-listers - Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Shelley Winters, Gloria Swanson, James Stewart, William Holden, Joseph Cotten, Dana Andrews - whose onscreen deaths (or the threat thereof) added instant production value.

Another of these selfless efficiency directors was James Goldstone, whose seminal work was in episodic television. (In 1966, Goldstone helmed the second pilot for Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, the one that sold.) The son of an entertainment attorney and talent agent (whose clients included Elizabeth Taylor and James Thurber), Goldstone directed few feature films, and his presence in a credit crawl invariably meant the producers wanted to save money by employing someone who could deliver the goods while creating as little trouble as possible. In his forty-five year career, Goldstone worked with many members of the Hollywood elite - Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, James Garner, even a young Robert DeNiro - but his big screen output was negligible. A shot at popular success came with Rollercoaster (1977), a pre-summer blockbuster about an extortionist threatening to explode bombs inside American theme parks unless a ransom is paid. "What better way to extort millions," Goldstone asked film critic Roger Ebert during production in autumn 1976 "than to hold an entire amusement park for ransom? A place where people take their families? Where the thrill is in risking death in safety - and then suddenly the risk becomes real?"

Universal Pictures had suffered a box office disappointment with its historical disaster film The Hindenburg (1975) - making it remarkable that Rollercoaster is essentially the same picture, a race against time drama in which a reluctant agent of the establishment (George Segal rather than George C. Scott) plays a game of cat and mouse with a wily and much younger antagonist (Timothy Bottoms instead of William Atherton) while innocents (among them, a 13 year-old Helen Hunt in her feature film debut) caper and cavort around them unaware of the present danger. The similarities should come as no surprise, given that the films shared screenwriters in Richard Levinson and William Link. (Unlike The Hindenburg, the villain of Rollercoaster is revealed right away, a tack that Levinson and Link had perfected over many episodes of their classic TV detective series Columbo.) Though the narrative is structured as a suspense thriller (with calamity limited to a single event early in the film), its disaster pedigree was established by the use of Sensurround, a Universal-patented low frequency audio augmentation system that had been first rolled out for Earthquake two years earlier. Rollercoaster would be the first film to manipulate production sound via Sensurround, whereas earlier films had employed sound effects recorded entirely in-studio.

Filling out Rollercoaster's supporting cast is a Whitman's Sampler of Hollywood veterans and newcomers, among them Richard Widmark (whose performance as an FBI commander is an echo of his early starring role in Elia Kazan's epidemic thriller Panic in the Streets [1950]), Susan Strasberg, Harry Guardino, Robert Quarry (Count Yorga, Vampire [1970], reduced to a walk-on as a photo-op politico), Steve Guttenberg (six years ahead of his career breakout as one of the stars of Barry Levinson's Diner [1982]), Craig Wasson (whose brief tenure as a rising star was a short walk between Robert Kaylor's Carny [1980] and Brian DePalma's Body Double [1984]), and Henry Fonda. Then in the midst of a string of "one-and-done" film appearances, in which he popped up for a single scene and a hefty paycheck, Fonda did more than his share of disaster due diligence, adding gravitas to Tentacles (1977), The Swarm (1978), Meteor (1979), and the Canadian copycat City on Fire (1979). Rollercoaster also afforded legitimate work to Andy Warhol acolyte Tom Baker (not to be confused with the British actor famous for playing Dr. Who), star of Paul Morrissey's I, a Man (1967) and a close personal friend of The Doors frontman Jim Morrison. An alcoholic and intravenous drug user; Baker made sporadic appearances on television and in features before his death from heroin overdose in 1982.

It is something like irony that New Hollywood would be taken down not by a resentful establishment but by a breakaway faction within its own iconoclastic ranks. George Lucas' Star Wars (1977), which followed Rollercoaster into general release by mere weeks, changed the shape of the American film industry for decades to come, souring the movie-going public on meandering masterpieces and whetting appetites for pulp mythologies and laser light shows. Rollercoaster turned a profit but was lost in the shuffle, having favored deliberate plot progression over spectacle and hero empowerment. James Goldstone's next assignment, the Irwin Allen-produced disaster film When Time Ran Out (1980), was an unmitigated failure and chased the director back to the small screen. He fared considerably better with the fact-based miniseries Kent State (1981), which earned him a primetime Emmy for Best Directing, and with the biographical telefilms Charles & Diana: A Royal Love Story (1982) and Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess (1983). Goldstone retired after 1990 and focused his energies on academic pursuits, teaching and lecturing at Bennington College, Columbia University, and New York University before his death from cancer in 1999.

By Richard Harland Smith

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Sources: Interview with James Goldstone and Jennings Lang by Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times, September 20, 1976

The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda by Devin McKinney (St. Martin's Griffin, 2013)

Richard Widmark: A Bio-Bibliography by Kim Holston (Greenwood Press, 1990)

The Incredible Scream Machine: The History of the Rollercoaster by Robert Cartmell (Popular Press, 1987)

Paul Newman: A Life by Shawn Levy (Three Rivers Press, 2010)

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